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Baseball

Participants in MLB’s Home Run Derby listen to the national anthem. Photo by Daniel Dunaief

It’s all about family.

Sure, there was plenty of high-powered baseball last week when I had the privilege of attending my first Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., July 17, with my son, but, ultimately, it’s clear between and outside the lines that the players fill their energy reserves with the support of their families.

Los Angeles Dodger Manny Machado signs autographs. Photo by Daniel Dunaief

After our first trip to FanFest — a gathering of dedicated baseball aficionados — we wandered over to a nearby burger joint where a man named Frank suggested we go to the Marriott across the street because that was where all the players were staying. We wolfed down the last of our burgers and found a lobby filled with kids of all ages — including adults who enjoy sharing the excitement of the game with their own children — waiting for a glimpse of their favorite stars.

Within a half-hour of our arrival, superstars wandered in the front lobby, where they had about a 50-foot walk between a huge revolving door and a private, security-protected hallway opposite a sign forbidding pictures or autographs.

Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, whose muscular 6-foot, 5-inch frame made him appear to be the picture of a professional athlete, carried his young daughter in one arm and luggage in another, making it impossible for autograph seekers to ask him to sign their baseballs, programs or notebooks.

Other athletes followed the same pattern, carrying their young children or holding their hands, making it impossible for fans to demand a signature or even to interrupt their family moments.

On the other side of the spotlight, many of the eager fans weren’t too far from their parents, who urged them on and wished them well.

“Who’d you get?” one fan asked her son as he raced back to her, holding a ball carefully by the seams to avoid smudging the valuable ink. “Manny Machado!” he beamed, referring to the former Orioles superstar who the Los Angeles Dodgers would soon trade five players to acquire a day later.

“Good for you,” she clapped and cheered, pleased with her son’s success.

Cameras follow Yankee star Aaron Judge’s every move. Photo by Daniel Dunaief

On another trip to FanFest, I watched parents clad entirely in the ubiquitous red uniform of the Washington Nationals. A father with an open jersey flapping at his sides led his two small children, whose jerseys were buttoned up to their clavicles, across the enormous space toward the Major League Baseball store.

At the Home Run Derby July 16, the event that precedes the game in which a few sluggers essentially see how far they can hit baseballs, Washington fan favorite Bryce Harper didn’t disappoint the rabid Nationals fans, beating a determined and electrifying Kyle Schwarber of the Chicago Cubs. After his victory, Harper thanked the fans and his pitcher who, as it turned out, was his father Ron.

At the game itself, we were fortunate to sit fairly near the families of the American League all-stars. Patty and Wayne Judge, parents of burgeoning Yankee-great Aaron Judge, watched their 26-year-old son’s every move, filming him during his introduction and cheering as he circled the bases after his home run against starting pitcher Max Scherzer of the Nationals. Many in the Judge entourage, like those from other families, proudly wore jerseys with the names and number of their all-star on their backs.

Rays’ pitcher Blake Snell’s family filled up almost an entire row of seats, with his name and his number “4” draped across their backs.

When Detroit Tigers pitcher Joe Jiménez entered the game from the bullpen, his family stood proudly, with each of them filming the jog from the left field fence.

Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor electrified his family with a hit that almost made it out of the stadium on a record-setting night for home runs. As he jogged back to the dugout to get his glove, his family stood and applauded his effort, as his broad, patented smile crossed his face.

Yankee pitchers Aroldis Chapman and Luis Severino play catch. Photo by Daniel Dunaief

In the top of the eighth, Lindor’s replacement at shortstop, the Mariners’ Jean Segura crushed a three-run homer, triggering a big celebration from his extended family, who high-fived each other and who received congratulations from the nearby Lindor family.

Segura was an unexpected hero, who was the last player named to join the American League team, beating out Yankee Giancarlo Stanton, among others.

Yes, we witnessed all-stars with the ability to hit balls over 400 feet. Ultimately, though, we had the chance to see families share a weekend that mirrored similar scenes around the world, albeit on a smaller scale. Watching all these families come together to celebrate their baseball achievements made me feel like I was at a high-profile Little League game. Parents, siblings and friends stand on the sidelines, supporting their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters as they revel in the opportunity of the next at-bat.

The result? The American League triumphed over the National League, 8-6, in the 10th inning of an unforgettable all-star game.

Stony Brook University baseball player Nick Grande slides into third. Photo from SBU Athletics

By Desirée Keegan

Nick Grande was home for a few weeks during winter break, and while his mother joked he could get a job during his extended stay, the shortstop had a different idea.

“No, mom,” he said in response. “As soon as the new year starts that’s it, you won’t see me again. I’ll be at Stony Brook every day.”

The Stony Brook University sophomore was a standout for Smithtown West’s baseball team, helping the Bulls claim two league titles during the three years he was team captain. He was named second team All-State as a senior after posting a .529 batting average, which also earned him the Suffolk County Silver Slugger Award. He also captained the league title-winning basketball team in his senior season. But while there are always adjustments to be made making the jump from high school to Division I college ball, his freshman season didn’t go as smoothly as he’d hoped.

Stony Brook University baseball player Nick Grande turns two. Photo from SBU Athletics

As a freshman at SBU, he played in 35 games, collecting multiple hits in seven of those contests. He notched his first collegiate hit and home run in the same game at Presbyterian College, and went 3-for-3 as the designated hitter in a win against Sacred Heart University. But he wanted to become more consistent, so he got up every morning during winter break at 8 a.m. to work on improving his game, and he did.

Grande batted .377 for the 32-25 Seawolves this past season. His 78 hits were the sixth most in a single season in Stony Brook history; his 32 stolen bases are the second most in a season only behind MLB-draftee Travis Jankowski’s 36 in 2012; he had 22 multi-hit games, including eight in a row; and reached base safely a team-best 22 straight games. Grande batted .418 in America East conference play and had five of his six home runs in conference.

“There’s a reason why people are talented,” said Nick Grande Sr., who was the head baseball coach and now principal at Island Trees High School. He recalled bringing his son to the field every day after school since he was 3 years old. “It’s all about the time they put into perfecting their craft … his desire, his determination. He hates to lose more than he loves to win, and that’s been since he was 3 years old.”

Although the elder Grande said his son has a fear of failure, he doesn’t show it. Grande Jr. said he’s picked up a philosophy of positivity along the way, from his time spent on the diamond at the age of 7 with his dad at the end of the day from his father’s Island Trees coaching job, to his new head coach Matt Senk, and everyone else he met along the way.

“You have to go into a game expecting to be successful — that’s the only way it’s going to work out of you, I think,” he said. “Even if you’re cold or having a tough day you have to step into the box knowing that you’re going to get a hit. I tried to have a positive mindset out there.”

“He hates to lose more than he loves to win, and that’s been since he was 3 years old.”

— Nick Grande Sr.

The starting shortstop earned back-to-back America East Player of the Week honors March 27 and April 3. He went 6-for-11 with a homer and three RBIs in a home series against the University of Massachusetts Lowell and went 6-for-6 with three doubles and a pair of RBIs in a win against Binghamton University. One of the nation’s top base stealers in 2018, he swiped three in a game twice. He went on to be named second-team ABCA/Rawlings Northeast All-Region, an America East spring scholar-athlete, a first-team Google Cloud Academic All-American and a first-team All-American by Collegiate Baseball.

“It was nice to be able to produce and contribute to help the team win games,” Grande said, adding it helped having role models like recent MLB draftees pitcher Aaron Pinto and infielder Bobby Honeyman and Coram outfielder Andruw Gazzola. “Being in a great lineup where top to bottom guys are having great at-bats didn’t hurt either.”

Despite his strong showing on the offensive side of the ball, Grande said he has a defense-first mentality.

“He’d rather catch a ground ball than get a base hit, and when he makes an error I hear about it for days,” Grande’s father said, laughing. “That’s because we’ve hit thousands of ground balls. He doesn’t stop, he doesn’t quit, and that’s because he wants to be as close to perfect as you can be.”

Senk said though that Grande wanted to be more of a consistent hitter to balance his game. He said he pointed out to his shortstop he had an inside-out swing that didn’t allow him to hit the ball as hard as he could, so he started pulling the ball more. Grande also practiced using his backhand to get to more ground balls.

Stony Brook University baseball player Nick Grande digs into the box. Photo from SBU Athletics

“He has such a tremendous work ethic — that was never an issue,” the SBU coach said. “He worked hardest in the toughest part of the game. He takes well to coaching, he kept working at it and working at it and ended up really clicking in a big way. I knew it when we were playing the defending national champs, University of Florida, and he hit a home run off first-round draft pick Brady Singer. From there his season took off. I think that was because of his dedication, athleticism and intelligence.”

But there’s more to the ballplayer than his devotion and talent. Smithtown West head coach Al Nucci said what he does in the classroom, and the kind of teammate he is makes him exemplary in every which way.

“He stood out from the day he started,” Nucci said of seeing Grande during a Booster Club practice as a youngster. “As crazy as it sounds as a young boy he had an incredible work ethic, he loved the game, he was always looking to improve, he smiled, he was super polite — as a 6-year-old on 60-foot diamond completely and totally standing out from his peers.”

He was pulled up to varsity as an eighth-grader to get more of a challenge, and ended up starting the second half of the season and into the playoffs after an injury sidelined one of his teammates. His coach joked that he might be the only Bulls player in history to hit a home run in his first at-bat and sacrifice bunt his next, showing his team-first mentality.

“He’s probably a better person and a better student than he is an athlete,” Nucci said. “He’s the first on the field and the last one off it, and he backs up his leadership skills and his work ethic with results on the field. And Nick didn’t need to speak — he spoke with his mitt, with his arm, with his bat, with his baseball intellect and with his attitude. Nick is the type of kid that takes a little something from everyone and uses it to his advantage. I hope my son ends up like Nick one day, I’ll tell you that.”

“He takes well to coaching, he kept working at it and working at it and ended up really clicking in a big way.”

— Matt Senk

Grande’s father said although it can be nerve-racking, it’s been nice to take off the coaching uniform and sit back and watch his son play.

“Your stomach is turning, you’re a nervous wreck, your hands are sweating, but there’s not a better place in the world to be than watching your kids play sports,” he said. “The sport to me always had such a positive effect on my life, and from an early age he seemed to be following in the same footsteps, that the game was going to be meaningful for him, too.”

Baseball is a game of highs and lows, and it’s those who turn the lows into highs that tend to become successful. Nick Grande is the epitome of that according to those who know him best.

“When you get a text from your son that says, ‘Dad, I was just chosen as first-team All-American,’ after you pick yourself up off the floor, you take a deep breath and say, ‘Wow, all of his hard work, all of his dedication really paid off for him,’” Grande Sr. said. “People that work hard deserve to be rewarded in life, and in his case he has.”

His life makes for a fascinating story even if the current spy movie is mediocre. “The Catcher Was a Spy,” tells of Morris “Moe” Berg, baseball player, and his remarkable intelligence and exploits, especially during World War II. Born in Harlem, not far from the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants, Berg began playing baseball at age 7. He was to be called “the brainiest guy in baseball,” and Casey Stengel, a baseball player and manager who was something of an eccentric himself, referred to him as “the strangest man ever to play baseball.”

Berg’s story, captured in Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 book of similar title, is also the story of the times in America in which he lived. Born in 1902, he begged to go to school at age 3 1/2. The third and youngest child of a pharmacist and a homemaker, Berg graduated from high school at 16, then Princeton magna cum laude in 1923, as an outstanding scholar-athlete playing baseball all along the way. He also grew up as an outsider, marginalized there because of modest finances and as a Jew at a time of deep bigotry. He majored in modern languages and spoke some half-a-dozen fluently, including eventually Japanese.

Upon graduation, Berg was signed to a contract by the Brooklyn Robins, soon to become the Brooklyn Dodgers and he seemed to be just so-so at bat but a good clutch hitter with a strong and accurate arm in the infield.

After that first season, Berg traveled to Paris, where he enrolled at the Sorbonne and read several newspapers each day. By January 1924, Berg was not thinking of going back to spring training to develop himself as a hitter but rather found the idea of travel irresistible and went on to tour Switzerland and Italy. When he finally did return to the United States, he was optioned off to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association minor league. He was to play for four American League teams throughout his baseball career, primarily as a catcher, ending with the Boston Red Sox as player and then coach in 1941. “Good field, no hit,” was how Dodgers scout Mike González, characterized him. Berg distinguished himself for his putouts stealing percentage, double plays by a catcher and assists by a catcher.

However, throughout his baseball life, which he so clearly loved, he was a true Renaissance man. In between seasons, and sometimes missing the first couple of months of the new season, he studied law at Columbia University, passing the bar in 1929 and finally earning his Bachelor of Laws degree in 1930. Interestingly, he was sent with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and a handful of other all-stars to play exhibition games with the Japanese in 1934 — Berg’s second trip there. Although certainly not of their star caliber, he spoke the language and was probably included on the squad for that reason.

While in Tokyo, he donned a kimono and pretended to bring flowers to the American ambassador’s daughter, who was a patient in the Tokyo hospital. He went up to the roof instead, and from the top of one of the tallest buildings he used his 16-mm Bell & Howell camera that he had concealed in the folds of his garb to film the city and harbor. He never did visit the daughter but he did provide American intelligence with rare and invaluable footage later on. He supposedly did this in anticipation of the war that he was sure, from his various readings and Far East travel, was coming. He went on to join the Office of Strategic Services, later the CIA; was parachuted into occupied Yugoslavia evaluating which resistance groups should get U.S. support — he chose Tito’s group; and became involved in the frenzied effort to determine if the German scientist Werner Heisenberg was close to developing the atomic bomb with orders to assassinate him if so — Berg decided not. Otherwise, he was of immense value to the U.S. as he moved throughout Europe in his dangerous and exciting life.

The former ballplayer turned down the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor to the war effort, during his lifetime but the medal was awarded posthumously. In American history he is a mysterious footnote.

Gavin Buda hurls a pitch during the Blue Chip Prospects Grand Slam Challenge all-star baseball game. File photo by Bill Landon

Gavin Buda’s first word was “ball.”

“True story,” the Harborfields dual-sport standout athlete said. “I’ve been playing sports as far back as I can remember.”

Harborfields wide receiver Gavin Buda waits for the ball to drop along the sideline during the Empire Challenge football game. File photo by Bill Landon

Baseball was his first love, he said, signing up for every team he could play on. He played for the varsity team from freshman through senior year of high school, also competing on high-level travel teams and tournaments in other states.

“It just seemed my path was set to play baseball in college,” he said.

But during his sophomore year, he decided to try out for the junior varsity football team with some of his friends. The team went undefeated, and the wide receiver was hooked.

“There was a feeling I got playing football that I never felt playing baseball,” he said. “This bond that is created between teammates that only happens in football. The knowing that you have each other’s backs — that feeling made me think if I work hard enough, this is the sport I’d like to play beyond high school.”

He never gave up on either sport, spending three days training for football and the other three for baseball. He said winters were intense, spending time indoors at batting cages while also gearing up for the fall football season, working with trainers like Jay Fulco, Mike Bouranis, Mike Feldman, James Brady and Jay Fiedler.

Buda this month became the first Suffolk County athlete to play in both the Rawlings Blue Chip Prospects Grand Slam Challenge and Empire Challenge football game, with Wantagh’s Ryan Sliwak achieved the feat in 2011. Buda said he had no idea the history he’d made at the time he was selected.

Gavin Buda makes a catch between two Rocky Point football players during Harborfields’ homecoming spoiling win. File photo by Bill Landon

“From a young age you could tell the kid was super athletic — he stood out among his peers, and from there, he put in a ton of hard work to really hone that and continue to stay ahead of the pack,” said Harborfields baseball coach Casey Sturm, who coached Buda since he was in seventh grade. “He was a special player, and what really stood out at the end of his tenure wasn’t even so much what he did at the plate but his defense in the outfield and ability to pitch were huge.”

In Suffolk County’s 5-4 loss to Nassau June 8 at St. Joseph’s College, Buda tossed a baseball for what might be the last time. The pitcher and outfielder took over on the mound in the bottom of the fifth and retired the side in order.

“To end my high school baseball career being selected to play alongside players that were drafted to the MLB or heading off to colleges like Vanderbilt to play baseball is just awesome,” Buda said, although he joked if he let up a homerun he might not have been as happy. “To get on the mound and face those guys one last time was a great way to go out, and luckily, I did pretty good.”

A week later, he’d put down his glove and bat to strap on some football equipment.

In the Empire Challenge game, he made a 30-yard reception during a play he wasn’t even slated to be a part of. Knowing Northport quarterback Ryan Walsh, he said during the call in the huddle he told Walsh he could beat out the kid that was guarding him deep. Walsh trusted him, and Buda delivered. A step ahead of the defender, he said there was no way he was letting the ball drop.

Gavin Buda rips the ball deep into the outfield during the Blue Chip Prospects Grand Slam Challenge. File photo by Bill Landon

His two-year head coach Rocco Colucci said for him personally the moment was fitting. Being a teacher at Northport he’d coached Walsh on the junior varsity level.

“This is why I coach football,” he said. “To see these guys grow and excel.”

He said too it was a privilege to watch Buda excel the way he did.

“Right off the bat I knew he was going to be a playmaker,” Colucci said. “His hard work showed. He was always looking to get better. He was very coachable — anything I told him to do, he’d do it. And because of that, [when other teams] put their best defensive players on him,  he’d still make the catch. He likes that type of best-on-best competitiveness in football, and there’s a lot of areas in football where he excels.”

Buda will be taking his talents to Hobart and William Smith Colleges to join the football team, but said he’ll never forget where he came from.

“Harborfields is a great school, but for some reason we are always under the radar in athletics — it’s a smaller school so I guess that’s why,” he said, adding that while other top athletes chose St. Anthony’s or Chaminade, he never questioned becoming a Tornado. “There were some great players that came through Harborfields before me, and there’ll be more after me. I just hope that I did my part to help put Harborfields sports on the map. The experience these last two weeks of playing in both all-star games is something I will carry with me forever.”

This version was updated June 20 at 12:43 a.m. to indicate that Gavin Buda is the first Suffolk County athlete to be chosen for both all-star games, not Long Island. 

Harborfields' Gavin Buda only athlete to be chosen to play in both Blue Chip prospects baseball (pitcher) and football (wide receiver) games

By Bill Landon

A two-run eighth inning helped Nassau County tie the game and earn the would-be go-ahead run over Suffolk in a 5-4 Blue Chip Prospect Grand Slam Challenge win June 8 at St. Joseph’s College.

With the game tied 3-3, Garden City’s Mike Handal’s RBI gave Nassau the lead, and a Suffolk error brought in the eventual game-winning run in the 14th annual game sponsored by Rawlings, proceeds from which benefit Cohen Children’s Northwell Health Physician Partners Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics center in New Hyde Park.

St. John the Baptist catcher Logan O’Hoppe hit the ball deep to right, which scored Rocky Point pitcher and outfielder Joe Grillo from second, but Locust Valley’s Thomas Eletto forced a groundout with two runners on  to earn the save.

“It was a lot of fun playing tonight with all these kids,” said Ward Melville second baseman Logan Doran, who committed to Division I George Washington University. “I’m excited about competitive baseball. I’m ready to go.”

Doran proved that when he cleanly fielded a ball rocketed in the dirt, and passed it to short stop Kyle Johnson who turned a double play with bases loaded to retire the side and keep Suffolk up 1-0 in the second.

Johnson, who will continue his baseball career with Stony Brook University, said he’s been in awe of all the effort and commitment that goes into putting together the event for senior elites.

“This game’s awesome — Blue Chip; Jim Clark, who put this together years ago — it shows how [talented] Long Island is,” the soon-to-be Newfield grad said. “You’ve seen the guys this year that got drafted and a lot of those guys played in this game, so it’s an honor to be out here.”

Suffolk made it a two-run lead in the top of the third when West Islip outfielder Jake Guercio crossed home plate for the second time. And Suffolk’s hitting didn’t stop there.

Johnson stole second just ahead of a tag with Brentwood’s Justin Aviles in the batter’s box, but Aviles’ grounder toward third was thrown home in time to get Doran for the second out. Grillo smacked the ball deep to right next to load the bases, but Suffolk couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity.

Plainview JFK’s Ryan Saltzman hit a sacrifice fly to put Nassau on the board in the bottom of the inning, and Plainedge’s Jason Bottari did the same to make it a new game.

With no outs in the fourth, Newfield pitcher Bobby Vath hit into a double play, but Sayville’s Jake Russo raced home from third in time to help Suffolk retake the lead. The team looked to build on its lead in the top of the fifth when Mount Sinai third baseman George Rainer took four consecutive pitches at the plate to draw a walk, but two straight strikeouts ended the inning.

“It’s a great feeling to be playing with the best players on Long Island — I really enjoyed it,” said Rainer, who signed a letter of intent to play at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “It was a great day to end my varsity baseball career. I had a lot of fun and I can’t wait to see what college has in store.”

Harborfields pitcher Gavin Buda, the only athlete chosen to play in both Blue Chip Prospects games — the Grand Slam Challenge and Empire Challenge football game — took over on the mound in the bottom of the fifth and retired the side in order.

“It’s a huge honor to be chosen [for both],” said the Hobart and William Smith Colleges-bound wide receiver. “When you look at a school like Harborfields we’re always underrated and under-the-radar, so to be nominated to play in these games and represent this school is amazing.”

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Eagles fire on all cylinders to sweep Shoreham-Wading River for first Suffolk County championship title

By Bill Landon & Desirée Keegan

John Rosman was ready and eager to take home Rocky Point baseball’s first Suffolk County title.

The senior, who hit an RBI-double in the bottom of the second inning to start off the scoring, took a big lead off third two innings later on a grounder, and hesitated, freezing Shoreham-Wading River’s second baseman before darting home.

Rocky Point’s John Rosman dives for the plate and scores. Photo by Bill Landon

He squeezed his head-first slide in just in time to avoid the tag to give No. 2-seeded Rocky Point an early 4-1 lead in its 7-3 home win over No. 1 Shoreham-Wading River in game 2 of a best-of-three series Class A baseball championship May 29.

With his aggressive base running Rosman helped Rocky Point rake in its first ever county crown. The Eagles had topped the Wildcats 10-1 the day before, where the senior went 2-for-3 with two doubles.

“I’ve been running the bases aggressively all series — I had the confidence that I could get there and just let it happen,” said Rosman, who finished the day 1-for-2 with two runs, a walk and a stolen base. “You can’t make the game bigger than what it is. It’s just a baseball game; you’ve got to stay focused.”

Junior Rob Milopsky pitched a complete game, allowed six hits, one walk, two earned runs and struck out six to earn the win. The starter remained composed even with danger lurking, like when Shoreham-Wading River juniors Michael Smith and Mason Kelly crushed back-to-back home runs in the top of the sixth to bring the Wildcats within two. Milopsky fanned the next two batters to retire the side.

“It was everything I thought it was going to be,” the starting pitcher said of the game. “But I trusted my defense and threw my pitches. Just commanded the zone, gave it everything I had.”

“[You’ve got to give] credit to Shoreham, they can break out at any moment; they’re a dangerous team,” Rocky Point assistant coach Eric Strovink said. “You can’t be too comfortable.”

Eagles starting pitcher Rob Milopsky throws a pitch. Photo by Bill Landon

The offense backed up their starter in the bottom of that sixth inning with two more runs to re-extend the lead. Joe Grillo hit the ball through a gap to bring home Dillon Cassidy and Mike Gunning’s ground-rule double sent Grillo across the plate.

“Words can’t even describe [this], it feels great,” Grillo said. “I’ve been here a few times and never won, and now, we’re champions.”

Ryan Callahan also contributed an RBI-double in the first, and Ryan Maciaszek laid down a bunt that brought home Alex Bonacci for a 5-1 lead in the bottom of the fifth.

Bonacci said he trusted Milopsky to get the job done even when the Wildcats (18-5) closed in.

“I knew he had it in him to go all the way — he looked great from the start,” the senior said. “I honestly had no worries. I knew we were going to get it done, and when it happened, it was awesome.”

The Eagles (20-5) will face Wantagh in the Long Island Class A championship Saturday, June 2, at 4 p.m. at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue.

“They work harder than anybody out there — they deserved this, they’re an extraordinary group of kids and I’m so happy for them,” said Rocky Point Head Coach Andrew Aschettino. “It’s special.”

Playoff game suspended due to inclement weather with No. 2 West Islip ahead 4-1

Third baseman Matty Maurer hurls the ball to first base. Photo by Desirée Keegan

A stroke of lightning might be what Ward Melville’s baseball team needed to turn things around.

First baseman Ryan Hynes reaches for a high throw in time to get the out. Photo by Desirée Keegan

With rain, thunder and lightning delaying the No. 7 Patriots’ second-round playoff game against host No. 2 West Islip May 15, it also ends the Lions’ one-run-per-inning scoring streak, with the two teams resuming
play May 16 at 4 p.m., barring no additional weather setbacks. West Islip held a 4-1 lead when play was suspended.

“We played uncharacteristically poorly on defense,” Ward Melville head coach Lou Petrucci said. “And it cost us.”

Ward Melville started the bottom of the inning off strong, with junior Max Nielsen smacking an RBI-single to shallow right center field on a 3-2 count to score senior Brady Doran from second.

“I knew either it was going to be a ball by a long shot or he was going to give me an easy pitch to just flick into the outfield, and he gave me just that,” Nielsen said discussing his discipline at the plate. “My approach was to simply put the ball in a hole somewhere. When I saw Brady [Doran] score I knew that it was going to be a good game.”

Petrucci said he expects that from one of his star starting pitchers and designated hitter.

“He’s been doing that all year,” the coach said. “Max had a big hit right there, and we need more of that from other guys, too. Baseball’s not a one-man show. Max did his job, but we have to come back the next inning and shut them down, and we didn’t do it.”

Max Nielsen races to first base. Photo by Desirée Keegan

West Islip answered with a ground-rule double, a bunt and a sacrifice fly to tie the score, 1-1. A grounder to third ended the inning, but Ward Melville came up empty over the next three innings while West Islip scored once in each. The Patriots also couldn’t cash in despite loading the bases in the top of the third with two outs.

“We came up empty a few times with runners in scoring position, but it’s hard adjusting and sitting back against a pitcher who is throwing low-to-mid 70s,” Nielsen said. “On the defensive side of things, we had a few hops and plays that didn’t go our way, so that’s baseball for ya. We knew that West Islip was going to be a tough team to beat, but we know that we can beat them. We wanted to get ahead early and really get into their bullpen.”

Ward Melville will dive into its bullpen, with the pitch count rules leaving both starters ineligible to return to the mound for the remainder of the suspended game. Matt DiGennaro will come out of the bullpen to replace Ethan Farino for the Patriots.

“I don’t know who they’re going to use, but I can’t worry about them, I have to worry about Ward Melville,” Petrucci said. “We’ve had the right hitters up, but we couldn’t get the big hits. Hopefully with a day change we’ll get these opportunities again and try to put some good swings on the ball. We have to see if we can fight back.”

Second baseman Logan Doran tosses the ball to first base.

Nielsen said the team has been in tough hitting situations before, and Petrucci added players have struggled all year with two-out production, and that was the case through most of the day. The head coach said he told his boys following the postponement that the plays West Islip made gave them a 4-1 lead, and the plays the Patriots didn’t make helped Ward Melville to a 4-1 deficit.

“Offensively we’ve struggled all year with two-out hitting — now it’s a playoff game and we’re doing it again,” Petrucci said. “Hopefully we can make up for it over the next three innings. The season’s not over — we’ve had a great one, the kids have played hard all year, we just have to continue to play hard for the next nine outs and see where the chips fall.”

Results from the second part of the suspended game were not available at press time May 16.

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Wolverines face top-seeded Smithtown East in the out bracket on the road May 15 at 4 p.m.

By Bill Landon

Although the double-elimination game didn’t go as planned, Bobby Vath got by with a little help from his friends.

The first-inning showing was all visiting Connetquot needed to get past Newfield, 3-0, in the first round of baseball playoffs May 14. With a runner in scoring position a Vath pitch was drilled deep to left field for a ground-rule double and a 1-0 lead. Three pitches later, a passed ball at the plate put Connetquot ahead 2-0.

“I went back into the dugout after the top of the first, and they were right there ready to pick me up,” the senior said of his teammates. “So I was ready to go back out there in the second and fight for my team.”

Newfield was unable to answer in bottom of the inning, and unfortunately for Vath, an RBI-single gave the Thunderbirds an insurance run in the top of the second.

Newfield was able to get the bat on the ball after that, but when the Wolverines did get on base, Connetquot’s defense answered the call to keep them there.

Vath found his rhythm in the third, and despite Connetquot putting two runners on base in the top of the sixth, the senior didn’t give up a run the rest of the way. He struck out the next two batters in that inning to get out of the jam.

“He settled down after that first inning and started throwing outs, working off his fastball and had good command of the game,” Newfield head coach Eric Joyner said. “That’s just vintage Vath — he’s a great competitor.”

Newfield faces an unexpected opponent Tuesday, May 15, after top-seeded Smithtown East was upset by No. 17 Bay Shore, 7-4.

“Our approach has to be the same — come out of the gate hot, protect the baseball and throw strikes,” Joyner said. “We’ll have to execute a little better offensively tomorrow than we did today.”

Despite Newfield being the No. 8 seed, Vath said to him and his Wolverines, it doesn’t matter what seed they are, or what number they’re facing.

“We’ll definitely get the scouting reports from the other coaches who’ve played [Smithtown East], because that helped us in this game too, but their number doesn’t scare us,” Vath said. “We’ll go in there with the mentality that if the 17thseed beat the No. 1 seed, anybody can beat anyone on any given day.”

Shoreham-Wading River, Miller Place three-sport athletes excel at Blue Chip Prospects Long Island combine

“By no means is Long Island considered a hot bed for football players, but we have a ton of talent here,” horeham-Wading River defensive back and quarterback Xavier Arline said, hoping to show off his skills on the
gridiron at the Blue Chip Prospects Long Island football combine May 6.

The event at Sachem High School North, put on in conjunction with the Suffolk County Coaches Association to showcase top Long Island football talent, ran the 70 athletes that attended through six stations before breaking off into specific position drills. The football players participated in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, standing broad jump, 185-pound bench press, 5-10-5-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill.

Shoreham-Wading River quarterback Xavier Arline leaps over a defender. File photo by Bill Landon

Arline ran the second fastest 40-yard dash (4.55) and 5-10-5-yard time (4.41), behind Brandon Didier of North Babylon, who ran a 4.51 and had a 4.39.

“Knowing I have a good foundation to build off of is confidence boosting,” the sophomore said. “It just shows that with additional training and hard work I can compete with athletes across the country.”

Miller Place junior Tom Nealis, a 6-foot 4-inch wide receiver, ran a 4.91 40-yard dash and had a time of 4.67 in the 5-10-5.

“It was great to be out on the football field again and it was cool to see a lot of other top players and great
athletes there,” said Nealis, who also plays baseball and basketball. “I feel that playing baseball may have put me at a slight disadvantage. Baseball takes up a lot of time that could have been used to practice these drills and work on quickness.”

But he said that won’t hold him back from his dream of being a Long Island standout like Sachem North’s Dalton Crossan, who signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in February, and William Floyd alum Stacey Bedell, who just received an invite to the rookie minicamp of the San Francisco 49ers.

“The way the game is played is like nothing else,” Nealis said. “No other sport can you physically feel
the effort and intensity of your opponent. Seeing these guys make it to elite programs opens my eyes to the possibilities.”

Miller Place’s Tom Nealis grabs a catch. File photo by Bill Landon

Arline said the success of more recent graduates who have gone on to play Division I football, like Sayville’s Jack Coan (University of Wisconsin) and his former teammate Ethan Wiederkehr (Northwestern University) helps ignite a fire in him. Despite verbally committing to the University of North Carolina to play lacrosse as an eighth-grader, the sophomore is keeping his options open.

“This was a great opportunity for me to see where I am at as a player and athlete,” he said. “I wanted to attend this event to gain experience, find my highs and lows and compete against myself. It created a baseline and foundation for me to build on as I begin the football recruiting process.”

Hans Wiederkehr, Ethan’s father who is the president of the football coaches association, and a two-time Long Island championship winner while he was the head coach at Babylon, said since football doesn’t have travel teams, an event like this helps get student-athletes exposure.

“I’ve always thought it was a great tool for all the kids,” he said of the combine, that’s in its 16th year. “The best part for me is every kid really wants to be there and every kid wants to do great. They all have hopes and dreams, and some leave with a reality check while others get to see how good they really are.”

Arline said he thinks he has what it takes to shine at the next level in his favorite sport.

“The most difficult part about the combine was not knowing what to expect — I had very little to no preparation going in,” he said. “With hard work, perseverance and a little luck I believe I can get there.”

It’s only May and, despite the warm weather, it feels a bit like October around here, at least, if you talk to fans of the Yankees and Red Sox.

The two best teams in baseball, as of earlier this week, were preparing to go head-to-head in a three-game
series that seemed to have more on the line than a typical series between the heated rivals at this point
in spring.

The Red Sox had that incredibly hot start, winning 17 of their first 19 games, tearing up the league and anyone who dared to try to compete with them. The Yankees, meanwhile, started slowly, sputtering to a .500 record.

And then the Yankees seemed to have gotten as hot as the weather, scoring runs in the clutch, pitching with confidence and bringing in rookies like Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar, who play more like seasoned veterans.

On a recent evening, my wife and I made a quick stop to the grocery store. As we were walking out, a friend saw me in my Yankees sweatshirt. The friend asked if the team pulled out a win, even though they were losing 4-0 in the eighth inning.

As my wife waited patiently, I recounted nearly every at bat that led to another improbable Yankees comeback. A man who worked at the supermarket came over to listen, put up his hand to high-five me and said he had a feeling they might come back.

While the team measures the success of the season by the ability to win the World Series, the fans, particularly during a season with so much early promise, can bask in the excitement of individual games or series.

The first season, as the incredibly long 162 games from March through October is called, can include
numerous highlights that allow fans to appreciate the journey, as well as the destination.

Nothing is a given in a game or a season. We attend or watch any game knowing that the walk-off home run the rookie hit could just as easily have been an inning ending double play.

Ultimately, the most important part of the season is the recognition that it is a game. You can see that when the players mob each other at the plate or smile through their interviews with the sideline reporters after a tight contest.

Year after year, all these teams with all their fans hope the season ends with a victory parade. They want to be able to say, “I was there.”

Ultimately, in life, that’s what we’re hoping for. Moments to cheer for friends and family, to celebrate victories and to enjoy these contests.

Indeed, the winners often look back on the moments when nothing came easily, when their team, their family or their opportunity seemed to be so elusive. These are occasions when nothing that seems to go right turns into those where everything goes according to plan. They don’t happen because you’ve got the right fortune cookie, put on the right socks or asked for some deity to help your team beat another team full of equally worthy opponents, whose fans utter the same prayers.

They happen because of the hard work and dedication. They also often happen because people are taking great pride in doing their jobs and being a part of a team.

Right now, it feels like these two blood rivals are well-matched, facing off in a May series that can bring the energy of October. And, hey, if you’re looking to connect with someone, put on a Yankees or Red Sox sweatshirt and head to the supermarket.

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